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UNK- When you ask Dr. Theresa Wadkins about teaching, her face lights up. She is quick to share stories about student successes—acceptance into doctoral programs, overcoming personal difficulties to stay in school, winning research projects—but modest about her own achievements.
This spring, her successes as a teacher, in and out of the classroom, have earned Dr. Wadkins the 2008 university-wide Outstanding Teaching and Instructional Creativity Award (OTICA).
“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” Dr. Wadkins said of teaching, which she has done on the University of Nebraska at Kearney campus for 18 years. In addition to classroom teaching, she has mentored more than 40 undergraduate student projects which have been presented at regional and national conferences, as well as at Student Research Day on the campus.
Among the conferences where her students have presented are the annual meetings of the National Conference of Undergraduate Research (NCUR), the Rocky Mountain Psychological Association, the Nebraska Psychological Society, the Association for Psychological and Educational Research in Kansas, and the Great Plains Students’ Psychology Convention.
About her work mentoring student research projects, one nomination letter noted: “Theresa works with the students, helping them to articulate the initial research idea, conduct the study, analyze the data and prepare the paper for presentation.” In addition to the 40 projects that have been presented at various conferences, she has also mentored many student projects that have not been presented.
“She tends to place very high standards on which papers she will sponsor for presentation.”
When she isn’t teaching or mentoring student research, she is often doing research into the teaching/learning process. She has published four journal articles centered on teaching, and she has made more than 20 presentations on teaching related topics at regional and national conferences.
At the beginning of her career, Dr. Wadkins said, she never saw herself as a teacher. She had planned to make her professional life as a therapist. She first taught at UNK on a one-year appointment, teaching part-time and doing counseling part-time. Then she was “hooked” on teaching and decided to go on for a doctorate.
“I taught four classes here full-time and drove to Lincoln to take classes,” she said. It took her three-and-a-half years to earn the degree. She continues to hone her teaching skills, attending teaching conferences and talking about teaching with colleagues.
“Seeing what other teachers are doing is helpful, but you have to find your own style,” she said.
One teaching technique that has been effective in her classroom is playing Psych Jeopardy to review for tests.
“I didn’t come up with the template,” she said. “I got the idea at a conference and adapted it to my own use. Teams compete for bonus points. The students study harder for a jeopardy review.”
In her office, along with the textbooks and professional journals lining the shelves of her bookcases, is a collection of movies. The movies were part of students’ assignments for a course on abnormal psychology. In addition to reading the textbook, students watched movies depicting various mental illnesses and discussed the accuracy, or inaccuracy, of what was portrayed.
“We discussed what was accurate in the films and what wasn’t,” she said.
For Dr. Wadkins, the influence teachers have in the lives of students, in addition to what students learn in the classroom, is what teaching is about.
“It was about the middle of the semester one year when a student brought in a drop slip,” she said. “I told her, ‘Think about it. You can do this.’ She had stopped believing in herself.” The student completed the class and is now on her way to completing her degree.
“As teachers, one little comment can make a big difference in the life of a student,” she said.
“Of all the faculty in our department, Dr. Wadkins is clearly the most versatile,” said Dr. Robert Rycek, UNK psychology professor. “She has taught courses using traditional lecture/discussion format, Personalized System of Instruction format, online and Web-based courses, as well as small group lab experiences.
“She is an outstanding and creative teacher who epitomizes the qualities engendered in the award,” he concluded.